Back to Print?


We live in an age of limitless distraction. Our attention spans are shorter for a lot of reasons – such as the impact of social media on how we connect with others, the way we consume media (especially news) and our overall reliance on various devices (phantom vibration syndrome has happened to me!). It isn’t that we’ve stopped reading, but rather the way we read has changed. According to Book Business Mag, publishers’ book sales went down 6.7% from January 2015 to January 2016, but downloaded audio grew more than 30% during that time. Surprisingly, the sale of ebooks is down. Publishers Weekly recently published a survey performed by the Codex Group that illuminated the fact that that 25 percent of book buyers “want to spend less time on their digital devices.”  The largest group surveyed that reflects this attitude are actually 18-24 year olds. Publishing analysts are now exploring the concept of ‘digital fatigue.’ Of those surveyed, 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books.

So what does this information signify? Are physical books in the midst of a popularity resurgence?

Maybe, but most likely not. According to a Nielsen report from 2015, the increase in print book profits predominantly amount to…

….the popularity of adult coloring books – about 12 million were sold in 2015 alone (not-so-fun fact: the coloring book trend has led to a global colored pencil shortage).

What aspect of the publishing industry has truly shown an increase? Audiobook sales. The Association of American Publishers released data on June 27 that revealed that U.S. sales of audiobooks increased 30% when comparing January 2015 to January 2016. In fact, audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. This is excellent news in terms of national literacy, as pairing audiobooks with their print edition has proven to be an excellent tool in assisting adolescents with reading problems and/or special needs.

The thing is, the aforementioned findings are based on ebook, audiobook, and print book purchases. Where do libraries fit into the picture?

According to the American Library Association, 90% of public libraries have eBook lending programs – yet only 62 % of adults are aware that such programs exist. A 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that a mere 6% of those 16 and older have borrowed eBooks from their library.

Only 44% of those surveyed went to a library or bookmobile in the past 12 months, which could explain why the general public is unaware of their library’s offerings. What demographic uses libraries? Survey shows predominantly women, young adults aged 18-29, higher educated adults, and parents are among the most avid users.

Interestingly enough, those who are regular library users are actually more likely to be technology users. It is a myth, then, that those who haven’t visited libraries in the past 12 months are opting to utilize technology instead of borrowing materials or obtaining information from their local library.

Besides supposed ‘digital fatigue’ how can the decline in eBook sales be explained? James LaRue, former director of Douglas County (Colorado) Libraries states that, “even the most assiduous reader cannot keep up with the flood of new content…after every big change, there’s a natural slide back to the comforts of what worked before.”

What does the future hold for ebooks? “I think people are reading digitally more than ever before, despite the plateau in the reported ebook statistics. In the long run, most people expect the plateau to end and growth to resume, quite possibly fueled by reading on mobile phones,” predicts Andrew Albanese, senior writer and features editor for Publishers Weekly. 

At the American Library Association’s annual conference this year, industry-leading eBook and audiobook provider Overdrive demonstrated a number of ways for libraries to “stay competitive and reach more people in their community.”  They are as follows:

  • New Overdrive app – designed to make it easier and faster to read eBooks and listen to audiobooks, especially for new users
  • Merchandising tools – beginning in the fall, libraries will be given the option to have a static URL to better promote digital collections
  • Digital book clubs – libraries all over the world are implementing programs like “One Book, One Community” by utilizing the Overdrive platform. “Publishers are capitalizing on this growing trend by offering libraries eBooks and audiobooks under simultaneous use or bulk discount plans,” states a press release dated June 23.
  • Circulation/Demand analysis – A free report can be generated at no cost that will assist librarians in identifying collection gaps, exposes circulation growth, and “compares a library’s digital circulation to libraries of similar size and population around the country. It shows how a digital collection is performing and can be narrowed down for a closer look at genre, audience and format.”
  • New Suppliers and Collection Development Tools – Overdrive has added manga and graphic novels to their offerings, recognizing their continued popularity.
  • New and Improved Digital Bookmobile – Overdrive’s Digital Book Mobile is getting an update in 2017, setting off on another North American tour (the specifics have yet to be unveiled)

It seems that eBooks are here to stay. Just like public libraries, the format may need to adapt and perhaps become more interactive as new technology develops in order to keep the public’s attention. It will be captivating to see what the future holds and how print books fare over time in relation to their digital counterparts.